For years, cutting-edge contemporary art has been one of L.A.'s greatest exports. Biennial curators from other cities fly here to do studio visits, make discoveries and take them back home.
Now the Hammer Museum has teamed with nonprofit gallery LAX Art to reclaim the home turf and tap into the huge community of young artists living here. A team of curators from the institutions are planning a large-scale biennial, starting in 2012, featuring artists from the L.A. area. The exhibition will take place at both spaces as well as public sites in the area.
"Whether people love or hate them, biennials are very much anticipated, desired and needed by the artistic community. They are our versions of the Oscars or Emmys," says Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum.
As for the decision to partner with LAX Art, Philbin says it grew out of a yearlong conversation with Lauri Firstenberg, the founder of LAX Art, because the organizations are so "simpatico."
Firstenberg expands on that thought. "Annie's mission of supporting artists working on the ground in Los Angeles really rubs up against the ethos of our own organization," she says.
Logistically, organizing a biennial is a large undertaking, but this is not exactly new territory for the Hammer. Museum curator Ali Subotnick has co-organized one edition of the Berlin Biennial. Deputy director Douglas Fogle previously organized the Carnegie International. And since 2001 Philbin has overseen for the Hammer a series of thematic group exhibitions that happened to take place every two years and at times (think "Thing: New Sculpture from Los Angeles" in 2005) had the messy, exuberant energy of a biennial packed with new talent.
This is also familiar ground for Firstenberg, who curated one edition of the California Biennial, which has taken place at the Orange County Museum of Art since 1984, though not always every two years. Her gallery also works to introduce new artists regularly, but she says her nonprofit has been "bursting at the seams" in terms of exhibition space.
That's one reason, she says, why the collaboration between LAX and the Hammer will extend beyond the biennial. The two plan to work together on other projects, such as upcoming shows of Shannon Ebner to take place at both venues.
So what does the new biennial mean for the California Biennial, which opens its 2010 edition at OCMA on Oct. 24?
Museum director Dennis Szakacs, who calls his biennial "a cornerstone" of the museum's program," is not making any snap decisions. Whether they would rethink their own plans, he says, "remains to be seen until we have more details on the new project."